Northern Light

The opening of the new Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA) this past January marks a major step in Edmonton’s two-decades-long effort to recreate a vibrant downtown through its arts district. Centred around city hall and its expansive Sir Winston Churchill Square that are both specifically designed to meet a mix of civic and arts functions, the district is part of the city’s objective of rebuilding an urban-based culture in the northern capital. The opening of the West Edmonton Mall in the 1980s, then the world’s largest enclosed shopping centre, as well as developments such as Edmonton Centre and Commerce Place, devastated downtown shopping. Significant government cutbacks in the next decade further damaged the commercial core by driving up real-estate vacancy rates and reinforcing the existing downward spiral.

By 2002, the conservative non-profit think tank Frontier Centre for Public Policy reported a “downtown renaissance” was underway. This in part was the result of a changing municipal focus that included more flexible approaches to urban housing, development of downtown educational institutions, encouragement of commercial tower conversions to residential use, adaptive reuse of remaining heritage structures and scrapping the policy of facilitating rapid car travel through the core. Just last March, however, Scott McKeen of the Edmonton Journal provided a more guarded assessment when kicking off his article on the city’s recently adopted Capital City Development Plan and the controversial $1.5 billion Arena District proposal by Edmonton Oilers owner Daryl Katz. “There are a few glimmers of true urban experiences in our downtown,” he wrote, commencing with the faintest of praises.

The art district as urban catalyst

Arts districts are increasingly employed as a core strategy component for revitalizing blighted urban centres. Edmonton’s current Arts District is an odd mix of both civic and arts-directed structures, mingling legislative, judicial and police buildings with theatre, gallery and library structures. Peace, order, good government and artistic creativity, it would seem within the Canadian context, do indeed make compatible bedfellows. The two decade old process of transformation still underway, however, has centred on the sometimes controversial replacement of significant post-war Modern designs with new architecture of varying quality.

Fortunately, the much celebrated Citadel Theatre (1976, Diamond and Meyers with Richard Wilkin) remains; not so fortunate was Hugh Seton’s 1957 city hall demolished in 1990. Architectural historian Harold Kaplan dogmatically called it a “fussy version of the International Style” that was soon dated. In fact, its use of rich natural materials that included red granite, travertine and green marble, along with strongly articulated brise soleil, extruded volumes signalling functions and an animated roofline on the penthouse was exactly what saved the building from the International Style’s largely banal legacy. Its replacement by Dub Architects dominates the district with its seven storey glass pyramid and its free standing, 200-ft. tall bell tower boasting 23 bells and a 90 tune repertoire. But while such natural materials as Manitoba Tyndall stone, red granite and B.C. fir also define the building, the new city hall’s severe geometry appears closer to the late Aldo Rossi’s Rationalist architecture than a design for central Alberta’s romantic albeit often harsh landscape. Inside, however, the impressive, multi-levelled square under the towering steel-framed pyramid is capable of holding audiences of up to 3,000 for cultural events. The Sir Winston Churchill Square fronting the building also provides a major festival space that includes the EPCO Amphitheatre as well as formal gardens, a covered patio, waterfall and a pond that converts into a skating rink in winter.

Five years later, the $45-million Francis Winspear Centre for Music (Cohos Evamy Partners) was completed for the Edmonton Symphony. The much-admired 1,932 seat concert hall (Artec Consultants — acousticians) is a classic “shoebox” shape modeled after Vienna’s Musikvereinssaal and Zurich’s Tonhalle. Like city hall, its exterior form is coolly modern but with a series of offset volumes, one relatively opaque and clad in Tyndall stone while the other fronting the performance hall is transparent. If the city hall tower is a minimalist stone shaft, the Centre for Music counters with a delicate glass shaft.

The art gallery competition

Within this evolving context of an emerging if somewhat un-adventurous civic/cultural place making, the Art Gallery board began considering a modest $12 million upgrade to the aging Brutalist gallery (Bittorf Architects, 1969). Ambitions grew, however, and in 2005, with private as well as federal, provincial and municipal government contributions rolling in, an international competition was initiated. From 27 expressions of interest, four were short-listed including Randall Stout (Los Angeles), Will Alsop (London/Toronto), Zaha Hadid (London) and Arthur Erickson/Nick Milkovich (Vancouver), all designers unlikely to be constrained by a conservative context.

If the Canadians produced an open, animated but perhaps too “contextual” proposal for the now emboldened jury, Alsop characteristically submitted a strikingly coloured graphic block.

Ultimately it came down to either Hadid’s powerful monochromatic piled assemblage of almost boulder-like forms that recycled Don Bittorf’s concrete main level as its base or Stout’s mix of rotated geometry penetrated by a swirling ribbon of steel. In the end, the latter’s more whimsical metaphor of city, river, industry and the aurora borealis got the nod.

Recycled but transformed

The competition called not for a new building but a renovation that would expand but also recycle as much of the existing structure as possible. A total of 84,000 square feet, including approximately 24,000 square feet of interior exhibition space, was mandated. According to Stout, detailed functional studies found a solid structural frame but concrete exterior walls (originally intended to be stone) well beyond salvaging. He also found Bittorf’s low perimeter ceiling treatment created an entrance that was “a dark sliver of space.” His first move was to remove the west structural bay and inserted what is now the building’s signature entrance atrium. Not incidentally, this introduced a dynamic urban corner that intentionally plays against the grid of Churchill Square and city hall. To gain the required additional gallery space, he added a two storey, rotated slab that is pushed to the north side of the original building and cantilevered out toward the square. The former gesture creates a generous roof sculpture terrace while the latter, because it also appears to rest on a canted glass wall, offers a precarious balancing act to passers-by.

While much of the attention has centred on the building’s exuberant atrium form, Stout’s design grows first from the interior and its function. With 60 per cent of the original building saved, as well as the new third storey, he created state-of-the-art exhibition space tailored to the gallery’s collection. Additionally, as the AGA focuses heavily on temporary touring exhibitions, the galleries are clean, neutral and largely rectilinear boxes permitting considerable flexibility and a high level of environmental control. In other words, the gallery is not so much a piece of sculpture to hold art, such as Wright’s Guggenheim and Gehry’s Bilbao museums, but instead a highly functional gallery that then seeks to attach, as seamlessly as possible, its own integrative sculpture-cum-public space.

Reading the metaphors

Stout is open about how a careful reading of the physical genius loci of the cities in which he builds provide inspiration for very accessible ‘metaphors’ in order to “capture the unique composition of their natural surroundings, while transforming light, shadow, form and materials into innovative
architecture.” As such, the AGA’s imagery is inspired by a beguiling mix of local natural references and the dominate grid pattern of the city.

The Gallery’s transparent entrance atrium is a four-storey, 86-ft. high irregular volume formed of angulated planes of articulated fritted glass panes. This representation of Edmonton’s urban grid is cleaved by a 625-ft. long ribbon of stainless steel that literally swirls in, out and around the light-filled public spaces while rising to a height of 102 feet. At one level, it serves as a three dimensional representation of how the deep winding trench of the North Saskatchewan River bifurcates the city’s flat landscape. But more importantly for Stout, it is the swirling forms of the aurora borealis that provided the compelling inspiration for the dancing ribbon of steel.

The Borealis, as it is called, is no metaphoric artifice. Rather, “these two languages of mass and curvilinear form,” he says “define an inviting rhythm of destination and path in a unique way-finding experience.” At ground level the ribbon serves to draw visitors into and through the initial entrance space toward the Grand Hall, a 32-ft. clearstory-lit gallery designed for rotating exhibitions. It twirls upward wrapping around the grand stair before breaking again outside to dip and swell across the sculpture terrace, an exaggerated architectural cornice that appears remarkably like the wind-sculpted lip of a huge Rocky Mountain or prairie snow drift. Inside, the Borealis frequently provides the same cornice effect while also more tightly enveloping smaller event spaces, such as the indoor sculpture concourse, to create something akin to porous snow caves with generous openings. These openings frame views into and through the larger public spaces and out to the urban cityscape. “Wall and ceiling,” he has written, “become one fluid surface which captures the spatial volume while guiding the public through entry points, wrapping event and gathering spaces, and leading on to the galleries.”

The transparency of the atrium, the dynamic in/out movement engendered by the reflective metal Borealis and the visual tension of the cantilevered upper levels are also part of Stout’s commitment to an urban design that engages and supports street life. He wants to blend the line between architecture and urban design based on blurring the demarcation between interior and exterior at multiple levels.

Materiality and light

Materials and how they work in an area’s natural light also play a key role in Stout’s approach to capturing a sense of place. On the exterior, the glass, zinc and stainless steel each have their unique but complimentary and subtle tonal characteristics. At the same time, he says, they work with, rather than against the palette of concrete and Tyndall stone found on buildings characteristic of downtown Edmonton. Patinaed zinc shingles, a very Canadian material, clad the gallery’s main volumes. Despite its minor reflectivity, it reacts in subtle ways to changes in light precipitated by sometimes powerful weather shifts within the region further mediated by long summer days of bright sunshine or short winter days of dusk-like light. A yellow morning sun produces a soft greenish hue to the panels, while a change from gray sky to blue results in a shift from cool blue gray to warm grey.

The Borealis’ bead-blasted finish reflects both color and light in a highly diffused manner, ensuring it produces visual highlights without glare. Because its surface “reflects colors through gentle transitions that exist at the reciprocating angle of the line of sight, it behaves like a mirror but with very “fuzzy” reflections.” Thus the changes in the sky and light conditions are reflected more literally than with the zinc. Soft blues are produced by blue skies while warm yellow appears in the morning sun. A prairie sunset produces more orange and reddish tones. Stout also dislikes direct lighting and the two-sided form of the ribbon allows him to bounce off and diffuse artificial light at night within the Gallery. While parts of the exterior of the twisting ribbon are left just to reflect the dark night sky, lighting on other surfaces causes the stainless steel to resonate like its namesake.

The subtle toned materials of the exterior, including concrete, are carried through to the interior but the palette is also considerably enriched by much warmer, more refined elements. Polished concrete floors compete with ebonized hardwood maple floors in the galleries. In particular, the liberal use of Douglas fir for ceiling lathe and refined planks on walls, sometimes set off against zinc shingles, provides a striking but complimentary warm red/orange contrast.

Appropriately, the AGA introduces a much needed exclamation mark for Edmonton’s Arts District. The fact that it has raised strong, often emotional responses, more positive than negative, is a testament to its own artistic merit. Certainly, the argument espoused by some that its design is derivative of Frank Gehry’s work (Stout worked with Gehry for seven years) is simply spurious. One could equally point to shared elements of the language of Libeskind or Hadid, if not a score of other architects. More importantly, the Galley raises the interesting question of where architecturally the District will next go. It remains to be seen if the Gallery will have its own mini-Bilbao effect, not in terms of attracting cultural tourists but encouraging the city to once again invite world-class architects to join in the task of inspired place-making

Visit www.building.cafor an expanded slideshow of the Art Gallery of Alberta.

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